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February 2008
Color and Mastering for Digital Cinema Online
by Glenn Kennel
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Given the relatively recent introduction of digital technology into the field of film distribution (the first major release to be projected digitally was Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace in 1999), it’s only natural that an array of concerns have come up among filmmakers striving to properly deliver their digital work to audiences. The 35mm standard for celluloid presentation that has endured for nearly 100 years is giving way to completely new formats that influence everything from color and grain to contrast and luminance.
The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film Online
by J.W. Rinzler (Foreword by Peter Jackson)
Reviewed by JIm Hemphill

In his introduction to The Making of Star Wars, J.W. Rinzler reveals that, although each Star Wars sequel and prequel had its own Lucasfilm-sanctioned behind-the-scenes companion piece, the film that started it all never produced such a piece. Yet, as Rinzler discovered not long after writing two books on Revenge of the Sith, Lucasfilm’s vice president for marketing, Charles Lippincott, interviewed dozens of key members from 1975 to 1978 for a book on the original that was never completed. Now, 30 years after the film’s release, Rinzler has organized Lippincott’s material into a definitive text on Star Wars — from its earliest conceptual period to its theatrical release.
Michael Mann Online
by F.X. Feeney (editor: Paul Duncan)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few directors are as obsessive in their quest for authenticity and precise visual expression as Michael Mann. Whether focusing on cops, athletes, journalists or thieves, Mann seeks an ultimate truth in his material, which he finds through rigorous research at the writing stage, followed by an intuitive use of light, space and color on the set. He’s such a uniquely cinematic artist that it’s hard to put what he does into words, but in F.X. Feeney, Mann has found his scholarly doppelganger — Feeney is as thorough a critic as Mann is a filmmaker, and his new book on Mann’s work is a superb mix of analysis and behind-the-scenes production history.

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Color and Mastering for Digital Cinema
by Glenn Kennel
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Given the relatively recent introduction of digital technology into the field of film distribution (the first major release to be projected digitally was Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace in 1999), it’s only natural that an array of concerns have come up among filmmakers striving to properly deliver their digital work to audiences. The 35mm standard for celluloid presentation that has endured for nearly 100 years is giving way to completely new formats that influence everything from color and grain to contrast and luminance.

Readers looking to navigate this complicated terrain would be well advised to consult Glenn Kennel’s Color and Mastering for Digital Cinema, which examines the history, science and economics of digital grading and exhibition. Thanks to his extensive experience with digital technology, Kennel is uniquely qualified to address these issues, as he’s been involved with various restorations and digital intermediates — including O Brother, Where Art Thou? — and has also chaired the SMPTE DC28 group that studied digital-color encoding and decoding and worked to establish worldwide distribution standards. In his book, Kennel provides detailed descriptions of these standards and takes readers through the theory and practice of color filmmaking as they relate to the unique problems of digital cinema.

As its title indicates, Color and Mastering for Digital Cinema bypasses the preproduction, production and editing phases of digital filmmaking to focus on the final stages of color timing and theatrical presentation. The first section of the book provides a solid historical context, as Kennel describes the fundamentals of color and the ways in which the human eye perceives it. Then he moves into a discussion on how to apply these principles to the specific processes associated with digital cinema, including digital intermediates and theatrical exhibition. He devotes particular attention to RGB mastering space and how it relates to XYZ color encoding, and illustrates his concepts with dozens of figures and tables that serve as handy reference guides. Kennel organizes his material compactly, cramming a lot of minutiae into the chapters.

Though the tome serves as a comprehensive survey of current standards for digital mastering, it also contains case studies that sharpen the book’s focus. The studies are very technical and designed to be used by professionals working at the highest levels of digital postproduction. Yet Kennel also manages to organize his concepts in a manner that is accessible to novices — in discussions of technical issues, the author clearly explains the aesthetic and historical determinants of the issues. And his firsthand experience in the formation of digital-cinema standards gives him unique insight into such things as the decision-making processes of the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) consortium, an organization created by the major studios to develop consensus specifications.

In an in-depth chapter on color space in the digital realm, Kennel skillfully navigates the intersection of business, art and technology that informs the filmmaking process. Kennel also discusses the economic and practical considerations that impact the final stages of digital exhibition, pointing out that many of the same difficulties that plague traditional film presentation are present in the electronic realm. The problem of screen luminance, for example, continues to be affected by the considerable cost of replacing projector lamps. Though some digital projectors have built-in compensation to keep luminance consistent, there is nowhere near the level of standardization that audiences often (mistakenly) assume exists in digital exhibition.

Kennel occasionally makes mistakes when he ventures too far outside his area of expertise: For example, a chapter on 3-D presentation contains inaccuracies such as a reference to a nonexistent “Halloween 3-D” and an erroneous implication that Steven Spielberg was involved in Jaws 3-D. But at its best, the book is meticulous in its description of the methods used to create a digital master and the subsequent methods employed to faithfully reproduce that master on a wide scale. The color charts alone make the book a valuable resource for cinematographers and other professionals in the digital postproduction field, and the discussions of such issues as the 2K/4K debate make difficult concepts clear without oversimplifying them. As digital intermediates become increasingly prevalent and a greater number of theaters convert to digital projection, an understanding of the concepts the author explores is pivotal for filmmakers at all stages of the postproduction workflow. The clarity of Kennel’s writing and his broad approach make Color and Mastering for a Digital Cinema a fine overview of the subject.

Focal Press
$72.95 (hardcover)

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The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film
by J.W. Rinzler (Foreword by Peter Jackson)
Reviewed by JIm Hemphill

In his introduction to The Making of Star Wars, J.W. Rinzler reveals that, although each Star Wars sequel and prequel had its own Lucasfilm-sanctioned behind-the-scenes companion piece, the film that started it all never produced such a piece. Yet, as Rinzler discovered not long after writing two books on Revenge of the Sith, Lucasfilm’s vice president for marketing, Charles Lippincott, interviewed dozens of key members from 1975 to 1978 for a book on the original that was never completed. Now, 30 years after the film’s release, Rinzler has organized Lippincott’s material into a definitive text on Star Wars — from its earliest conceptual period to its theatrical release.

What distinguishes The Making of Star Wars from the majority of other writings on the film is its perspective. The tale is told not by people looking back — whose recollections could be compromised by hindsight, faulty memory and a desire to mythologize — but by filmmakers describing their experiences as they occur. The end result is a compelling demystification of the process that created one of the most popular and influential films of all time.

Director Peter Jackson provides an enthusiastic foreword that captures the seismic shift in cinema that Star Wars instigated, both in terms of technology and its influence on aspiring filmmakers. (Unfortunately, Jackson also perpetuates the myth that Star Wars pioneered the concept of a “used future” — something that John Carpenter did three years earlier with Dark Star.) From there, Rinzler presents a meticulous history of Star Wars that begins with George Lucas’ emergence as an award-winning student filmmaker in the 1960s and ends with his most enduring film’s massively successful release in 1977. In 12 chapters and 324 pages (plus 48 pages of bonus material for those willing to shell out $75 for the hardcover edition), Rinzler weaves detailed technical information into an enthralling narrative of a maverick director’s drive to bring his story to the screen.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about reading interviews conducted before the film’s release is that they contextualize Star Wars as an iconoclastic independent vision rather than a studio blockbuster. While such critics as Peter Biskind have blamed Star Wars for ending the era of individualistic filmmaking that produced such films as The Last Picture Show and Five Easy Pieces, Rinzler reminds readers that, at the time of its creation, Star Wars was no less idiosyncratic — it was a deeply personal movie by a writer-director who had to fund preproduction himself because he couldn’t get financing elsewhere.

In addition to the interviews, the Lucasfilm archives allow Rinzler to present an incredibly detailed visual history of Star Wars’ development. The first six chapters focus on preproduction and provide a treasure trove of conceptual art, script pages, and financial and legal documents that follow the project’s evolution — from Lucas’ initial notes to his vastly different shooting script. Rinzler describes Lucas’ progress on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis, describing the filmmaker’s creative and economic struggles as well as his cinematic and literary influences.

As the production moves closer to its start date, Rinzler incorporates into the story lavishly illustrated material about set design, camera systems and the birth of effects juggernaut Industrial Light + Magic. The book provides a riveting look at the combination of inspiration and pragmatism that’s required to get a movie off the ground, making it a valuable text for filmmakers and students of all genres. Of course, for fans obsessed with the Star Wars series, the book is essential reading, as both the technical aspects of the film and the evolution of Lucas’ process are shown here with great intimacy and detail. Of particular interest are the ways in which Lucas’ characters and storyline change dramatically from draft to draft right up until shooting.

This insider perspective is even more prevalent in the chapters that describe the film’s production and release, as Rinzler expands his scope to include interviews with actors, camera operators and animators, among other collaborators. Reading observations by future successes such as Harrison Ford, Dennis Muren, ASC, and John Williams — not to mention veterans such as director of photography Gilbert Taylor, BSC — at a time when the future of Star Wars was unclear is absolutely fascinating, and the fact that Rinzler has compiled the comments 30 years after the fact allows him to ignore the imperatives of studio publications, as his book unflinchingly describes the many artistic conflicts among key personnel on the film. Rinzler also supplements the interviews with production reports and stills to document the shooting on a daily basis, and he organizes the information beautifully to give readers a vivid sense of life on the set — a set, like so many others, that was defined by willful determination, limited resources and logistical frustrations.

Ironically, by demythologizing the Star Wars experience, Rinzler makes the movie even more inspiring. He shows, step by step, how Lucas and his collaborators created a visionary classic, and this approach simultaneously celebrates their achievement and makes such creative heights seem attainable. This, combined with dozens of surprising and delightful bits of trivia — did you know that Brian De Palma co-wrote the opening title crawl that provides the film’s back story, or that Lucas once considered shooting large chunks of the movie in Japanese? — makes The Making of Star Wars a must-read for anyone who loves science-fiction film and filmmaking.

Del Rey
$75.00 (hardcover); $35.00 (paperback)

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Michael Mann
by F.X. Feeney (editor: Paul Duncan)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few directors are as obsessive in their quest for authenticity and precise visual expression as Michael Mann. Whether focusing on cops, athletes, journalists or thieves, Mann seeks an ultimate truth in his material, which he finds through rigorous research at the writing stage, followed by an intuitive use of light, space and color on the set. He’s such a uniquely cinematic artist that it’s hard to put what he does into words, but in F.X. Feeney, Mann has found his scholarly doppelganger — Feeney is as thorough a critic as Mann is a filmmaker, and his new book on Mann’s work is a superb mix of analysis and behind-the-scenes production history.

The book begins with a discussion of Mann’s little-seen debut film, the 1971 short 17 Days Down the Line. In that documentary, Mann interviews a collection of men from various walks of life and inquires about their work, with the implications of that project reverberating through the filmmaker’s career — from Thief and Manhunter right up to Miami Vice in 2006. More than any American director since Howard Hawks, Mann defines his characters by what they do and how professionally they do it. The moral distinctions in his films are less between good and evil than they are between men who are devoted to their work and men who are not, which, on some level, makes Tom Cruise’s sociopathic hit man a kindred spirit with Jamie Foxx’s cab driver in Collateral, because each man dedicates himself to his job with the same zealous perfectionism.

Even a casual glance at any of Mann’s films reveals that he shares this hunger for perfectionism with his protagonists, as nearly every one of his movies has been a meticulously crafted, technically impeccable work of art. After a brief introduction, Feeney explores Mann’s process in great detail, one film at a time. The director gave Feeney access to his archives for this project and, as a result, both the director’s intentions and the critic’s analysis of those intentions are clearly and concisely illustrated with hundreds of vivid color stills. The author addresses Mann’s films in terms of their storytelling structure, journalistic authenticity and mise-en-scène. The book also serves as an authorized biography of the director, as Feeney discusses not only the films themselves but also the trajectory of Mann’s career and the considerations that went into each job he took on as a filmmaker.

Mann claims to dislike “gratuitous anything” — be it sex, violence or even beautiful imagery — if it doesn’t serve the story. Artistic function is his ultimate goal for every facet of the filmmaking process, and Feeney does a superb job of describing how Mann’s images function to create an emotional response in the viewer. He is aided by Mann himself, whose words appear frequently in the book, alongside sketches, props, continuity photos, shot lists and other documentation from the director’s papers. The layers of understanding are further deepened by the dual perspective of filmmaker and film critic, as the book is filled with quotes from Mann’s partners, including the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC. From that emerges a complete portrait not only of the director’s career, but also of his working methods and relationships with his collaborators.

Feeney’s greatest achievement in this book is to dispel the misconception that Mann is a slick but superficial stylist (a charge Feeney admits having made himself before coming to a greater understanding of Mann’s work). Though the volume rightfully addresses issues of composition and editing, Feeney also pays plenty of attention to the writing of Mann’s films, which speak to a vision of America as rich as that found in the films of Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood. Feeney notes that, when viewed together, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider and Ali form “a profound, interactive, philosophical history of the United States.” The author sees Mann as a “synthesist,” an artist who immerses himself fully in a subject to understand it mentally, aurally and visually. This concept allows Feeney to dissect the many layers of Mann’s complex movies and explain how the careful placement of objects in the frame generates meaning.

Regular readers of LA Weekly have long been familiar with Feeney’s critical acumen via his short but insightful pieces, but seeing what he can do when he dives into a subject at length is truly exciting. His analysis of Mann is passionate and well argued, and he isn’t afraid to point out his subject’s flaws, especially when it comes to the weaknesses of Mann’s one artistic failure, The Keep. Feeney makes a convincing case for Mann as a master filmmaker of the highest order, and the convergence of dialogue, image and theme that the author describes in film after film is positively awe-inspiring. Michael Mann is one of those rare volumes that works equally well as a lavishly illustrated coffee table book one can dip in and out of as well as an academically sound analytical study. The opportunity to learn from one of America’s best film journalists about one of Hollywood’s most exciting directors makes Michael Mann vital reading for filmmakers, scholars and fans alike.

Taschen
$24.99 hardcover
 

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